Natalia Molina understands that history is a living thing. “Placemaking,” she writes in A Place at the Nayarit: How a Mexican Restaurant Nourished a Community, “has worked in distinct ways for racialized groups.… The ethnic Mexican immigrants who congregated at the Nayarit were attempting to carve out a niche for themselves in their new homeland. Their story is not simply about struggling to gain access to urban space by grabbing a slice of the existing pie, but an expression of challenge that, in its own way, works to remake the existing city altogether.”
A Place at the Nayarit is a groundbreaking work, a book that blurs the line between vernacular history and scholarship—and in the process creates a territory all its own. Using the restaurant that her grandmother Doña Natalia Barraza opened in 1951 in the Los Angeles neighborhood of Echo Park, Molina writes about place and family, but equally about community. Those “who worked and ate at the Nayarit,” she explains, “were not just putting food onto the table or into their mouths. They were creating meaning, establishing links with one another, and tending to roots both old and new.”
This article appears in the Fall 2022 issue of Alta Journal.
This idea of place, or placemaking, has been part of Molina’s project all along. Her first book, Fit to Be Citizens? Public Health and Race in Los Angeles, 1879–1939 (2006), examines the way cultural and ethnic stereotypes became weaponized around health to justify discrimination in Southern California. Her 2014 follow-up, How Race Is Made in America: Immigration, Citizenship, and the Historical Power of Racial Scripts, addresses the use of discriminatory narratives to marginalize “racialized” groups. For this work as well as her teaching (she is a distinguished professor at the University of Southern California), Molina received a MacArthur Fellowship in 2020. A Place at the Nayarit both extends and expands her vision by evoking the history of her grandmother’s restaurant, which was not only a successful business but also a kind of cultural and social center—placemaking at its most profound.
This is important because it reaches beyond the family. “Between 1959 and 1973,” Molina writes, “the spirit of placemaking and place-taking that Doña Natalia had nurtured helped at least six former Nayarit employees open businesses of their own, all of which went on to become urban anchors.” But it is also important because Molina never loses sight of her grandmother’s role.
Doña Natalia was more than a placemaker; she was a social catalyst, creating an example and a set of opportunities. Molina traces this by way of a necessary double vision, as both historian and granddaughter, sharing the family stories and excavating what they mean in regard to the city at large.•